By Kate Bernot, @redeyeeatdrink
1:09 PM CDT, October 18, 2013
Jennifer Solberg had a good reason to reschedule our morning photo shoot at Rhine Hall, the West Town distillery she owns with her father, Charlie.
She had to make an emergency trip to Michigan to pick up 7,300 pounds of Gala, McIntosh and Cortland apples from Bixby Orchards, load them into an 18-foot truck and make it back to Chicago before noon. If she didn't pick up the fruit, Rhine Hall wouldn't be able to distill any apple brandy that week.
Solberg's willingness to do any job--even driving across state lines at 4 a.m. in a downpour--is indicative of the all-for-one work ethic that's turned her family's distilling hobby into a new business. The distillery, which opens Nov. 2 with a small tasting room inside, is the first in the city to focus on apple brandy and the Italian grape-based brandy called grappa.
"Our reason for opening isn't because distilleries are hot right now," Solberg, 25, of Bucktown, said. "We're not making another vodka, gin or whiskey. It's not because we don't like that product, it's just because our experience is in apple brandy."
Chicago has welcomed a handful of boutique distilleries within the past year--notably CH Distillery in the West Loop and Letherbee Distillers in Ravenswood--but none has staked its claim on brandy.
It's a spirit for which the Solbergs have a technical knack and a long-standing personal affection. After playing ice hockey for Dartmouth College, Charlie Solberg continued to play for a professional team in Austria, raising his family in the southern portion of Germany. (Rhine Hall is named for the ice rink where he played.) There, the Solbergs were introduced to what the locals called obstler, also known as apple eau de vie or apple brandy.
"In that region of Austria, they have the most abundant source of apples," Jennifer Solberg said. "It's legal over there for everyone [not just licensed distillers] have these [stills]. We were all introduced to distilling and the culture over there and enjoying these very hand-crafted spirits. It became the family hobby."
Making brandy remained only a hobby until September 2012, when Solberg decided the timing was right for her to move from San Francisco, where she had worked in sales and marketing, to become a partner in the distillery with her father. While her aunt, her brother-in-law and her other four siblings all have assisted in creating Rhine Hall in various ways, Solberg is the only one who has financially partnered with her father, Rhine Hall's master distiller.
"We sat down as a family and said 'We know we can make a quality product, it's just a matter of if we want to make a business of this.' Everyone else in the family was doing other stuff. I was like 'Man, I've just got to go for it,'" Solberg said.
They unanimously decided on Chicago, not only because Charlie's family is from the North Shore, but because of the strength of the community of artisans here.
"The sense of the loyalty in Chicago is, I think, what's really special about coming back here to start this," Solberg said.
The Solbergs do realize that brandy isn't Chicago's go-to spirit, which is why educating people in the tasting room is a priority.
"People need to go in and experience the spirit, versus just hearing about it being made," Solberg said.
The tasting room greets visitors stepping through the front doors on a quiet stretch of Fulton Street that's home to stained glass artists, a chic textiles store and an antique auto body restoration shop. The room's walls are stark white, save for a large abstract painting by Solberg's sister, Lisa, an L.A.-based artist. South-facing windows let in afternoon sunlight, with the beams skipping across the custom copper-plated still, the focal point behind the bar's glass wall. The entire room smells like apples.
When Rhine Hall opens Nov. 2, it will pour Rhine Hall's clear, unaged apple brandy--made completely from apples without the addition of neutral spirits--followed within the month by grappa and an oaked apple brandy. Though Solberg recommends sipping the spirits straight, Rhine Hall also will have a menu of two or three cocktails that incorporate cider or syrups from Madison, Wis.-based Quince & Apple. If visitors like what they taste, bottles of the brandy will be available for purchase at the distillery and soon will be distributed to bars and retail shops.
"I've started working with some bartenders and mixologists. Getting into those cocktail venues and bringing more awareness to the product is really the way to do it," Solberg said.
She imagines incorporating the brandy into old fashioneds, gin-based drinks and hot toddies, which sound especially enticing given the arrival of fall weather.
Once Rhine Hall has apple and grape brandy production under its belt, Solberg said it's only a matter of time before they branch out into other types of brandy.
"A city inspector who came in here was talking about his abundant mulberry trees on the South Side of Chicago and I'm like, 'We could make an alcohol out of that!' "
2010 W. Fulton St.
Open to the public: Thurs. 5-9 p.m.; Sat. 12-6 p.m. starting Nov. 2
Before the Solbergs purchased a higher-volume chopping machine, they used a vintage Schwinn bike to do the job. Their homemade apparatus uses a leather belt connected to a crank to turn a blade, which chops apples manually fed into the machine. To see me give the bike a spin at the distillery, click here.
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